Forget About Perks
Federal executives should seek no greater reward than honest, humble service.
A former federal ethics official recalls giving a lecture on the moral boundaries of working in government to a slate of young political appointees. They were fresh off the campaign trail for the newly sworn-in president, so the official went over all the limits on their activities. No political fund-raising. No gifts. No using your position to help family members. Finally, a hand shot up in the back of the room. "Where are all the perks?" one asked.
"I was glad they said that," recalls former Office of Government Ethics chief Stephen Potts, now chairman of the private Washington-based Ethics Resource Center. "I said, 'If you're here for the perks, get yourself back home.' "
Congress is embroiled in several ethics scandals, but history shows that executive branch officials are susceptible to severe breaches of conduct, too, often by top-ranking career executives or their political bosses. Former Air Force procurement executive Darleen Druyun was sentenced to nine months in jail after favoring Boeing for Air Force contracts and securing jobs at the company for family members and herself. Former General Services Administration official David Safavian has been accused of tipping off his friend Jack Abramoff that the agency was preparing to bar one of Abramoff's clients from government contracts. Those are only two of the more recent examples of ethical lapses, which are not rare enough.
After such cases come to light, there are always reviews of systems to determine why checks and balances failed to prevent the ethical breach. In Druyun's case, for example, a Defense Science Board task force review found that she was given too much power over too many aspects of the contracting process, and recommended that such power should be divided among several officials. The review also cited the Senior Executive Service evaluation process for failing to bring to light the many complaints from subordinates about Druyun's consolidation of power, recommending more input from employees in executive performance evaluations.
But the Druyun review and others are quick to point out that no systemic checks and balances will ensure that determined people cannot abuse their power for personal gain. And so a natural question emerges: Why do people abuse their power?
A common denominator that Potts has noticed is a sense of entitlement by the offending executives. Because they work so hard, are paid so little and get almost no recognition, federal executives sometimes feel entitled to bend or break the rules. "Partly it can result from hubris," Potts says. "People begin to think it's their birthright." It's particularly important that leaders avoid that kind of thinking, he says, because subordinates pick up on it and begin to think it's OK to use their own positions for personal gain as well.
How do leaders keep from bending-or breaking-the rules? There's a simple answer: A little humility goes a long way.
Potts, for one, likes to look for guidance not at the bad examples, such as Druyun, but at instances of strong ethical behavior. And perhaps the strongest model is the first federal executive, George Washington. Throughout his career, he eschewed material reward for his service and when given chances to accumulate power, he relinquished it. "That was an example of someone who did have control over his own psyche," Potts says. Washington also realized an important fact of life in the executive branch: There are no perks.